A child looks down, focused on or anxious about a task.

When it comes to your child’s overall well-being, their mental health matters as much as their physical health. Mental health can impact many aspects of your child’s well-being, including their ability to make and keep friends, their performance in school, and their physical health. Adults with mental health disorders often had symptoms as children or teens, but didn’t get pediatric mental health care.

For the best outcomes, it’s important to recognize and treat pediatric mental health issues early. Knowing about mental health for kids can help you help your child.

Common Childhood Mental Health Disorders

The most commonly diagnosed mental and child behavioral health disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Nearly 10% of children ages 2 to 17 have an ADHD diagnosis.
  • Behavior Disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. Nearly 8% of children ages 3 to 17 have a behavior disorder.
  • Anxiety. Some 7% of children ages 3 to 17 have an anxiety disorder.
  • Depression. Some 3% of children ages 3 to 17 have depression.

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Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders in Children

Like many other health issues, genetics, family history, and environment play a role in mental health disorders. Other factors that put children at risk for mental health conditions include:

  • Gender. Among children ages 2 to 8, boys are more likely than girls to have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
  • Economic stability. Some 22% of children who live below the poverty line have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
  • Age. The risk of depression and anxiety increases as your child gets older.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

Mental illness often starts at a young age, even as early as your child’s toddler years. One in 6 children ages 3 to 8 in the U.S. has a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder, according to the CDC.

Signs of mental disorders in toddlers and young children

It’s often difficult to tell if children’s behavioral health issues are just a normal part of growing up or something related to mental health. The following symptoms can be common in children with mental heath disorders:

  • Frequent temper tantrums.
  • Bad moods or being easily irritated.
  • Often talking about their fears or worries.
  • Being unable to sit quietly (they may still be able to watch videos or play videogames.)
  • Being unable to sit still.
  • Frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause.
  • Sleeping too much or too little, having frequent nightmares, or seeming sleepy during the day.
  • Not being interested in playing with other children or finding it difficult to make friends.
  • Struggling in school or experiencing a steep drop in their grades.
  • Repeating actions or checking things multiple times, such as making sure the stove is off or washing their hands constantly. They may worry that if they don’t do this, something bad will happen.

Signs of mental illness in adolescents

In addition to the above signs for children, you may also notice these mental health disorder symptoms in teens.

  • No longer enjoy doing things they once loved doing.
  • Sleeping too much or too little, or being sleepy during the day.
  • Having low energy.
  • Spending more and more time alone, avoiding socializing with friends or family.
  • Worrying about gaining weight, which can lead to unhealthy levels of dieting or exercise.
  • Self-harm behaviors, such as cutting themselves.
  • Thoughts of suicide.
  • Smoking and alcohol and drug use.
  • Engaging in risky or destructive behavior, such as driving too fast.
  • Rapid mood changes, such as going from high energy to depression.
  • Thoughts that someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things that you can’t hear.

When Should Children See Their Doctor for Mental Health

Mental health screenings are a routine part of many childhood and adolescent well-child visits. But mental health issues don’t follow a schedule.

It’s time to take your child to see their doctor if symptoms:

  • Last for several weeks or months.
  • Interfere with their daily life and functioning, such as going to school or interacting with family and friends.

You wouldn’t wait until a yearly exam to take care of a child’s physical illness, such as strep throat or the flu. Don’t wait until your child’s well-visit to talk to their doctor about mental health concerns.

If you’re worried about your child’s mental health, talk to your primary care provider. The sooner your child receives care, the sooner they can start to feel better. Earlier treatment can also prevent a mental health condition from getting worse. Depending on your child’s specific health, treatment can include psychotherapy, counseling, medication, and lifestyle changes.

Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health Services at UPMC

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh work together to provide comprehensive, integrated behavioral health care for children and their families.

The UPMC Western Behavioral Health Child Services Central Call Line is your first stop for mental health services for children. You can quickly access behavioral health services for your child and set up either an in-person or video visit. Simply call the central call line at 412-235-5444.

UPMC Western Wellness provides targeted access to UPMC Western’s short-term, community-based therapy services. Call 412-246-5811 to learn more about short-term intervention services.

UPMC Children’s and Children’s Community Pediatrics have pediatric behavioral health services that work specifically with your primary care provider.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health. National Institutes of Mental Health. Link.

Data and Statistics on Children's Mental Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.